Troubleshooting a Tripping Breaker: Is HVAC Equipment the Cause?
We’ve had our share of frustrations with breakers. They’re great safety devices and there’s certainly good reason to have them, but man is it irritating when one keeps tripping and you don’t know what to do! If you’re having repeat issues with your breaker, obviously the smart thing to do is call an electrician. But did you know that the solution might be to call an HVAC company as well? Many issues with breakers tripping can be traced back to HVAC equipment in the home. Today we’ll cover a couple of causes as well as possible solutions. Keep in mind that, as always, all work should be done by a licensed electrician or HVAC professional as appropriate. This is not an area for DIY at all.
If you’ve recently had HVAC equipment installed, an improper installation could be the cause of breakers tripping. That could mean a mistake was made during install, or that the wrong equipment was selected for the home’s wiring. Last summer, we had a client with a broken central AC system. Instead of getting it fixed, he’d set window AC units in three of the rooms of his home. He didn’t know it at the time, but due to some wiring quirks, those units were all running on the same circuit, and they tripped the breaker if they tried to run at once. An HVAC professional can help you identify and troubleshoot simple problems like these.
Dirty air filters can cause your system to overheat. Whether running the AC or the furnace, your system will run hot when pushing air through a dirty filter. It just has to work harder, and that can trip the breaker. This will also happen if your ducts leak air, and if your home itself is not optimized to retain temperature.
Dirty condensers also can overheat. The condenser—or the outside air conditioning unit as we often call it—has to get rid of a fair amount of heat. If yours is uncovered and filthy, you may find it overheats and trips the breaker. Its location outside the home makes it prone to becoming dirty and possibly damaged, although a cover can help with this.
No, not short pants (as Hank Hill would call them)—we’re talking about electrical shorts. Your breakers are designed to trip if something bad happens electrically in the home; this prevents fires, damaged electrical components, and potential hazards to life and limb if a person came into contact with the home electrics.
If your AC, furnace, or fans short, you can expect the breaker to trip. This may happen when they try to kick on, when they cycle, or at other times during their operation—making this issue particularly hard to solve without a pro. It could be a small short-circuit, a grounded compressor, or an issue elsewhere in your home electrics otherwise unrelated to HVAC.
Age gets us all, in the end. The older your system gets, the harder it works to make your home comfortable. And the harder it works, the more electricity it uses. If it uses too much power in too short a time, the breaker may believe that a short has occurred. Even if it hasn’t, circuit breakers are designed to err on the safe side and trip off just in case.
This is a tricky issue: there may be no solution other than system replacement. That said, as with all of these issues, it can be avoided and mitigated by regularly scheduled maintenance by a professional HVAC tech.
While not strictly HVAC-related, the age of your home wiring may also be an issue. We’ve seen plenty of houses where the wiring was inadequate for the job at hand, and we’ve told homeowners more than once that they needed an electrician to fix current issues before we could install HVAC equipment. Obviously this issue goes beyond the purview of HVAC, which means there are a lot of good reasons to fix faulty wiring in your home.
Diagnosing a Tripping Breaker
As you can see by now, a breaker that frequently trips because of the HVAC system can be the result of many causes, and it’ll be hard to tell as a lay person without extensive HVAC experience. Sometimes it will be obvious—for example, if the breaker trips every time the air conditioner starts up, you can safely assume the AC has something to do with the issue, and if it just started happening, that something has broken in your HVAC system recently. But more often than not you’ll be left scratching your head—is it the system? The wiring? Too much on one circuit? You can mess around with unplugging stuff and see if that helps, but if it’s more than that, you might need to be able to figure it out by yourself.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! Sometimes the best troubleshooting advice is to call a professional as soon as the problem becomes apparent. Recognize the pattern early on; once you do, call for help. You’ll find that an HVAC tech is your best tool against electrical and HVAC damage, as well as a great resource for information and a wonderful contact for the future.